Public post-secondary education has been much in the news lately in California. Budget shortfalls at the state level have been pinching the allocations to state university and state college systems, causing steep rises in tuition and fees to students, and cut-backs in maintenance and faculty salaries.
Over the last several decades, both the university and state systems have been rapidly expanding, to accommodate growing numbers of applicants. Private institutional tuition has been moving up rapidly too.
The original intent of public post-secondary public educational institutions has been to make undergraduate and advanced degree programs in the arts and sciences available to greater numbers of citizens, under the assumption that a broadening of the educational base has a favorable effect on the quality of society generally, with additional economic benefits, such as pure research, and vocational applications. A healthy society is an educated one, and offering a cheap alternative to expensive private institutional programs has historically been regarded as a self-evidently good investment by government.
Without going too deeply into theories of education, can we ask whether the assumptions about the advantages of a public education are as true as most people seem to have believed them to be? In other words, is it always in society's interest to devote a significant part of its resources in supporting post-secondary institutions, and if so, to what degree?
Most people accept the idea that society has a duty to provide primary and secondary school education to all of its citizens. Though the quality and value of public education differs widely across demographics, there is little doubt that requiring citizens to learn to read and write, to practice rudimentary mathematical skills, and to understand how our government works, are universally good goals. If a society is successful in providing a basic "high school" level of instruction, to achieve a level of competency for all its citizens, for free, does that suffice as a baseline responsibility or obligation, to provide post-secondary programs, on the public's behalf?
Some would argue that it is. As a beneficiary of public post-secondary education, I admit to enjoying the fruits of the broader definition of public education. I graduated from UC Berkeley in the late 1960's, then went on to graduate study elsewhere, eventually receiving two advanced degrees. It's doubtful that I would have been able to attend college at that time, without a publicly supported system, since my parents had made no provision for my anticipated college expenses, and would not have been able (had they been so inclined [alas, they were not]) to assist me in doing so, when the time arrived. Despite the fact that college tuition at that time was comparatively low, I would not have been able to attend without the scholarships and loans that I was granted.
For the first time in its history, this year's student tuition will exceed the amount of public funding to the UC budget. In effect, from a funding point of view, the state system is becoming increasingly "privatized"--with regard to the amount the users of the system are paying for their education. Students are "buying" an education, instead of being "given" one. Is this a bad thing?
As tuition has increased dramatically both in private and public institutions over the last several decades, the burden has shifted increasingly to the "users." Undergraduate and graduate program "clients" have had to take out progressively larger student "loans"--in many cases, so large that it may take decades to pay them off, once they graduate. A whole new loan industry has grown up around rapid college tuition increases, shifting the burden of support away from the government, which has had the effect of driving the increases even more.
This tuition "bubble" is now reaching a crescendo. The UC system announced a 16% annual tuition increase for the coming five year period, through 2016. Under the proposed plan, the less the state gave to the system, the more tuition would rise (to a 16% level). Because of the state's present budgetary quandaries, the 16% level would inevitably apply. Undergraduate in-state tuition at UC presently stands at $12,192/annum. Given the stagnant condition of American middle-class income over the last 40 years, it's difficult to imagine any family--even single-child units--being able to afford that kind of expense. Given the level of deferred obligation this creates, through extensive loan programs, the value of a so-called "public" post-secondary education comes into serious question.
The other side of the equation is a college degree's value to society. As the American economy declines, steadily losing manufacturing production employment to overseas venues, the importance of possessing an advanced degree has been touted as an alternative strategy to financial success in the job market. We hear continually about the value of a college degree in the new age of technology and expertise. But at no time in American history have the numbers of technocratic individuals accounted for more than a small percentage of the total work-force. The economic engine which drove American prosperity in the post-War period was not advanced technology, but assembly-line mass production. America had moved from an agrarian-based economy to a medium- and large-scale factory system in the 20th Century. By the end of the 20th, it was clear that so-called "globalization" would spell the end of that domestic paradigm. And it was clear that it would not only not be competitive in the old factory job model, but it would also not compete in the quasi-technical arena either; China and India have already seized that initiative, making most American-trained and domiciled college-degreed job-seekers irrelevant.
This does not, of course, mean that the inherent value of a college education is less. It does suggest that the value to society of offering free degree programs to the general public has been changed. If graduating seniors and advanced degree programs are turning out numbers which the general economy cannot absorb, those degrees will increasingly be seen as luxuries. There are only so many doctors, lawyers, engineers, MBA-holders, and scientists in the economy as it now exists. The percentage of "professional" class employees is a relative constant. This is true despite the supposed expansion of technical positions created by the information age revolution. It's obvious that the millions of jobs in automobile manufacturing, for instance, aren't going to be converted willy-nilly into high-level technology jobs, especially given the growing automatization of most medium- and large-scale manufacturing positions.
Government's decreasing investment in publicly run post-secondary educational programs may be seen, in the context of the decline in value of most degree-tracks, as an acknowledgement that turning out larger and larger numbers of highly-educated graduates is no longer necessary from a purely utilitarian point of view. We have become accustomed to thinking of college and university programs as de-facto systems of social initiative, in which economic imbalances can be rectified through the entitlement of needy but deserving candidates, pulling poor or disadvantaged students up through quotas and set-asides. But as the system is now becoming squeezed, the ultimate purpose of a college education seems to be more about retaining routes to social mobility, than it is about pursuing knowledge, research and economic prosperity. In other words, if the purpose of a public educational system is the transformation of society from one in which a presumed "elite" derives privileged access to the higher levels of achievement and prosperity, to one in which government facilitates a transfer of its wealth from the society at large, to identified "deserving" classes, then the question of the value to society comes directly into play. If a college degree is, in the context of the decreasing pragmatic utility, becoming a kind of luxury, then the ability to access that luxury should thrive within the private realm, not the public one. Why should society support a system which has become a luxury?
There will always be those whose talent and mastery entitle them to special consideration. Scholarships and grants in aid are usually sufficient to address that class. But the idea that the number of "qualified" applicants should be continually expanded, without limit, to include larger and larger numbers of aspirants, begs the question. What is it for? We've gotten into the habit of thinking that more and more people should be educated for more and more advanced kinds of thinking and performance. But why?
Is a good high school education insufficient to prepare a citizen for participation in a democracy? If Mexicans and Indonesians and Chinese and Indians can do the work Americans once did, for a fraction of the cost, obviously other solutions must be considered. Advanced education isn't the answer to the problem of globalization. Indeed, much of our education dollar goes to educate foreigners, and when American technology makes an innovation, the resulting formula becomes the occasion for the exploitation by foreign labor and industry.
Ultimately, as society grows, in the context of a growing automatization, the percentage of jobs for which one might need or want a college education is shrinking. Nearly every industry in America has shed jobs over the last quarter century. The notion that a new "service-oriented" "industry" is going to fill the vacuum is folly. And even if that were true, certainly the numbers of individuals needing a college education to "compete" is actually smaller in that scenario.
Unless we see a reduction in the growth of population, it seems inevitable that the need for college degree programs will decrease, as a factor of the whole population. But even with a decrease in population, the growth and sophistication of production and exchange lead inevitably to a decline in real employment opportunity.
The UC system will shrink over time. The education bubble is finally bursting, as it was bound to do. The days of cheap public post-secondary education are over, not likely to return. Those who insist that it's simply a matter of public funding priorities--of not acknowledging "the value of public education"--are deluded. The country's now full of computer science graduates but there are few jobs for them. Three generations ago, these same people would have been working in assembly lines, earning a good wage, securing a pension and possessing a premium-free health care policy. They would be dreaming of sending their kids to college to become lawyers and doctors and engineers. But that was 1955. It's now 2011. Welcome to the future.